For young Arlington fan who beat cancer, Celtics are a way of life

“Stepan Birmann is 12 years old and cancer free and that’s more important than anything else in the world!” Schlau wrote. “Thank you for supporting us man and praying for continued health my friend! This is a real WIN!”

Birmann, a charismatic and easy-going athlete who goes by the nickname “Steppy”, shared how much he appreciated Smart’s effort to put a big smile on his face.

“It was indescribable,” said Birmann. “I was just happy. You don’t meet a star every day.”

While Birmann has been battling brain cancer, the Celtics have served as a distraction and outlet. Birmann, who also collects sports memorabilia, has met everyone over the years from Jo Jo White to Antoine Walker and he loves to play with his father Michael, who has had season tickets since before Stepan was part of the family.

Birmann, now a winning seventh grader at Ottoson Middle School who is happiest on the basketball court, has had anything but a linear journey. Born in Vladivostok, Russia, he experienced prenatal exposure to HIV, hepatitis, and more. He was placed in an HIV ward and none of the locals acted to adopt him following the ads in the newspaper due to the high risk involved.

Arlington natives Michael Birmann and Katie Clinton heard about his story and decided to make the best decision of their lives. When they brought him home at about 22 months, Birmann was small. Now he is almost 5ft 10 inches and still growing. He plays basketball at Arlington Boys & Girls Club and also loves hockey, baseball and soccer.

His parents describe him as someone who is anything but shy and always tries to lighten the mood of those around him. Even when he was a patient with Dana-Farber, he made sure to spend time with younger children at the clinic and bring as much positive vibes with him as possible.

“We were really lucky to be paired with him,” Michael said. “He’s just a special kid. We couldn’t have had a better match.”

Stepan Birmann from Arlington shows the autographed sneakers he received from Marcus Smart.Photo courtesy of Stepan Birmann

Michael fondly recalls taking him to games and watching him fall asleep on her lap as the game unfolded. At home, Birmann recited the opening lineups and sang the national anthem, pretending to come out of the dressing room and playing with the plastic ring in the living room.

He was seemingly healthy until one day, in November 2020, doctors discovered a brain tumor.

“It’s every parent’s worst nightmare to take her to that MRI and find out there’s a mass in his brain,” Michael said.

Birmann underwent two surgeries and radiation therapy, then a year of chemotherapy that ended four months ago. After a recent MRI, doctors found they were now able to remove the port they had been relying on for chemotherapy.

He’s well on his way to becoming a “normal kid” and, they hope, to move on from this chapter of his life completely. His parents never cease to amaze at his unwavering positivity, even in dark times.

Watching the Celtics on TV was a wonderful distraction, but he missed going to TD Garden and immersing himself in a noisy crowd. Michael called it a “breath of fresh air” for Birmann and the family when they were able to play games again from last spring. Birmann is a bit of a local celebrity and fellow Celtics fans often say hello and wish him the best.

“It’s definitely something that kept him going,” Michael said.

Celtics forward Jayson Tatum shaking hands with Stepan Birmann before a playoff game.Photo courtesy of Stepan Birmann

However, no visit was more significant than the beginning of May. In addition to meeting Smart, Jayson Tatum also stopped by and gave Birmann a bracelet, which now hangs in his room next to the bobbleheads. Smart’s sneakers are on a chair nearby, and he often looks down at his memorabilia and grins when he’s lying in bed.

Birmann, who can’t wait to compete in the NBA Finals, is forever grateful for the support he’s received from Smart, Tatum and the rest of the Celtics community.

“It just meant the world to him,” his mother Katie said. “It makes me cry to say it.”

Trevor Hass can be reached at

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